Monday, February 25, 2013

The Beauty of Black Sparrow Books

In the winter 1986 issue of Matrix, the renowned review for printers and bibliophiles, Robert Kelly wrote that Black Sparrow books have a certain look: “The soft, textural wrappers, the odd, vivid-by-default underwhelming of hues and values, the habit of solidity.”

Not to mention the original use of type, color, ornament, and paper and the relationship between these elements that put this particular press – now an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher – in a league of its own. In his essay, Kelly describes how he views a book as something precious, an object “of love and desire by virtue of some gorgeous timeliness conferred by printer or binder," and how Black Sparrow books confer such a quality. The woman behind many Black Sparrow covers is Barbara Martin, who designed over three hundred in twenty years from her Santa Barbara home. Martin, who is married to John Martin, the original publisher of Black Sparrow Press, accurately portrayed each individual work and author while still preserving an identifiable style of her own. She viewed assignments critically and would refuse an author's personal color preferences if they did not serve the work. Kelly could always recognize a Black Sparrow book in a store, drawn to it by the "tender differences the designer cares for" that characterize Martin's look.

Martin's covers are indeed striking. Her sharp, geometric compositions betray influences of abstract expressionism and Russian modernism and push the reader to question their relation to the content inside. With one of these books in hand, it is impossible not to notice the fine quality of the paper on which the covers are printed and the bold colors rendered in clean, decisive matte. Open one up and you will see a three-color title page, a rarity in today's printing world.

The “continued miracle of the Black Sparrow Press” Kelly writes about is just as evident today as it was decades ago. Here are some examples of Barbara Martin's covers (front and back) from our shelves, all of which are still available on Black Sparrow's website:





John Sanford, Scenes from the Life of an American Jew, Volume 1: The Color of the Air

Thaisa Frank, Sleeping in Velvet

If you're still feeling nostalgic for the crisp letterpress style of the past, take a look through the many other treasures that Black Sparrow has to offer here.

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